After finding housing for more than 200 people who have been staying in an emergency shelter at the Portland Expo, city officials said Wednesday they will meet a looming deadline to move all migrant families out of the professional basketball arena by the end of Thursday.

Officials also said they now hope to avoid moving any of the remaining families to another temporary overnight shelter in the Salvation Army gym.

Since early June, 437 people – mostly asylum seekers from Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo – have flowed into the city from the southern U.S. border and arrived at the Portland Expo, which the city converted into an emergency shelter to handle the sudden influx. City officials say they need to close the shelter Thursday so the facility can be turned back over to the Maine Red Claws basketball team, which plans to resurface the basketball court before the beginning of its training camp.

Families who have not been moved into apartments or host homes by Thursday will be moved to Portland’s Family Shelter or, if there is no room available there, into the gymnasium at the Salvation Army.

Officials in Portland and nearby communities, immigrant community leaders and nonprofit groups have been working intensely to find permanent or temporary housing for the 132 people who remained at the Expo at the beginning of this week, a difficult task given the tight housing market in southern Maine. By Wednesday afternoon, the number of people at the Expo had dropped to 118 and more were expected to move into temporary housing or host homes by Thursday afternoon.

City Hall Communications Director Jessica Grondin said 212 people have been placed in temporary housing in multiple communities in southern Maine. City funding and the state’s General Assistance voucher program helps pay for rents. An additional 30 families have moved into temporary host homes, according to the Greater Portland Council of Governments, which helped to set up and coordinate the program.

On Wednesday, 12 people moved out of the Expo into housing in Scarborough, while another 28 more were expected to move Thursday into temporary housing in Brunswick and Bath. Families have also moved into temporary housing in Lewiston and Portland.

Papy Kashama Bongibo, president of the Congolese Community of Maine, said he believes only three to five families will still be waiting for temporary housing by Thursday afternoon.

At the Expo on Wednesday afternoon, a handful of parents packed suitcases and bags while their children played nearby. Dozens of cots used by families that have found other housing were stacked along one wall. At the back of the gym, children crawled into forts they made out of suitcases, sheets and overturned portable cribs.

Mao, left, and Makina pose for a portrait on their cots at the Portland Expo on Wednesday. The couple, along with all of the other asylum seekers left at the Expo, are packing up their belongings to move out. Mao, Makina and their two daughters are moving in with a host family in Brunswick. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Grondin said the temporary shelter at the Expo will begin closing after lunch is served Thursday.

The prospect of using the Salvation Army gym has been a source of concern. Unlike at the Expo, families would have to leave the Salvation Army gym from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and would sleep on floor mats instead of cots. Meals have also been served at the Expo, while people who stay at the Salvation Army gym would have access to breakfasts and dinners at the city’s General Assistance office nearby.

By Wednesday afternoon, Grondin said the city may be able to avoid using that facility entirely because the remaining families may be able to stay at the Family Shelter, which provides beds and 24-hour access.

Bongibo said he was scared there would be a large number of families with no place to go during the day, and has been reaching out to churches in the community to see if they have space. But he said Wednesday he is relieved that so many have found temporary housing.

“Now it’s manageable. We can find a space for them,” he said. “As a community, we’re trying to do what we can to help.”

Bongibo said he has spoken with many of the asylum seekers who had been staying at the Expo and heard no negativity from them about their new housing arrangements. The families that have moved into host homes are excited to be welcomed by the host families, he said.

“They’re giving families a chance to start a better life,” Bongibo said of the host families.

People move baggage out of the Portland Expo on Wednesday. All of the families must be out of the Expo by Thursday afternoon, so it can be prepared for the Maine Red Claws basketball season. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Families inside the Expo on Wednesday were nervous about sharing their stories with reporters and several declined to be interviewed.

One Congolese family that did agree to share their story through an interpreter said they are grateful for the kindness and generosity that the city of Portland and Maine have shown them.

Mao and Makina, who gave birth to a child on the Mexican border three months ago, will be moving Thursday into a host family’s home in Brunswick. They’ve never been to Brunswick before, but say they have heard good things about the town. They declined to give their last name.

“We are feeling thankful to the city of Portland. The end of something is always better than the beginning,” said Mao, who plans to study computer science. His wife, Makina, says she wants to study the English language so that she can share it with her newborn and 6-year-old daughter and to use her skills to communicate with her fellow Americans. She also wants to study to become a nurse.

“I love America. I used to dream of moving to America,” she said.

Margaret Born, a 23-year-old New Hampshire resident who grew up in southern Africa, has been volunteering two or three days a week to play with children at the Expo. After reading a New York Times article about the influx of asylum seekers into Maine, she felt compelled to volunteer because she speaks both French and Portuguese.

As asylum seekers packed belongings and talked to city employees, Born sat on the floor in the middle of the Expo to play with three small children. The children, who have been attending summer school in Portland, have shared with her their excitement about new backpacks and colored pencils, while their parents enthusiastically practice English with her, she said.

“This space was really hard for them. There’s no privacy and no quiet,” Born said. “The parents are so exhausted. They have to navigate this whole new world with a language they barely speak.”

After the shelter at the Expo closes Thursday, city employees will continue to locate housing for the families that remain in the city’s shelter system. Some of the nearly $1 million donated to the city to help asylum seekers was used to hire two extra housing counselors and two extra financial eligibility specialists, Grondin said.

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